Plea: Please stop giving free advice

You are not helping yourself or the industry

Didn't find your answer?

Like many other accountants, I get calls to give free tax advice. Ranges from simple to the more involved. 

In my opinion, as accountants, we have built a reputation for giving free advice, This can only change if a large number stop giving free advice no matter how straightforward a query may appear. 

My response to queries, in less than a minute,  is we do not give free advice. My hourly rate is £xx. Would you like to go ahead? Some do. Others, probably call other accountants. 

Over the next few weeks, I will also have the message on the home page of our website about no free advice. 

My plea is please STOP being nice and helpful.  Charge for the advice and work you do. This way you will help yourself and other accountants like me. 

Thanks  

   

Replies (43)

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By Duggimon
06th May 2021 10:44

If someone calls or comes to see me and I discover quickly that they do not need to be a client and in fact with me answering a question or pointing them to a form they need to get their issue is resolved, I'm not going to go through all the AML checks and admin of opening a file and registering them as a client, I'm just going to answer the question and tell them to carry on.

A good example would be someone whose only income is PAYE and who has a small amount of expenses per year. It is not worth my time and effort to take them on as a client and charge them a piddling amount to file their ta reclaim form each year, more trouble than it's worth, I'll tell them how they can do it themselves and send them off.

If someone comes to me with an issue for which they need my engagement though then of course I won't do it for nothing, but I'm not taking anyone on as a one off sub £100 fee, there's just no point.

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By sanjay100
06th May 2021 10:55

Yes you are correct. I think we are do it in the hope they will be converted to a client

Its so annoying when we try to be helpful and go out of our way they they decide to go elsewhere or do the work themselves. I have got one case at the moment he keeps emailing me on a complex matter and I reply then get further questions. Yesterday I said to him we need to have a formal engagement and he came back these are the last questions.

Though many more nicer accountants seem to give advice to free riders who post questions on accounting web. That probably needs to stop to ?

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Replying to sanjay100:
By Duggimon
06th May 2021 11:47

One response of less than two paragraphs would be my limit for a freebie. If the very first email to this guy was going to be longer than that then my answer would have been "sorry but this is quite a complicated matter and if I'm going to give you the advice you need to get this all sorted, we'll need a proper discussion about the issue and I can formulate a detailed response" followed by client onboarding, if he wanted to proceed.

As soon as he came back with a second round of questions he'd have got a reply along the lines of "sorry but I'm too busy with client work to address this in full, I would be happy to accept an engagement as your accountant and schedule time though, if that's what you'd like".

Being helpful and open is one thing but there's no need to be a doormat. Repeated emails with lists of questions with no expectation of paying you for your time is not something you need to accept.

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Stepurhan
By stepurhan
06th May 2021 10:56

I think you are shooting yourself in the foot.

Yes, you shouldn't give chapter and verse on a complex matter, but a little bit of free advice can pay dividends. Point someone to right website. Confirm they don't need to do a return for now, but may need to if certain plans come to fruition.

When those plans do come to fruition and they need paid for advice, who do you think they will call. The accountant that proved they can be supportive, or the guy that has made it clear that even the tiniest thing will result in a bill.

As an aside, I see the rules about content posted here not being posted on other sites still don't apply to you. Do you mind sharing how you have achieved that exception?

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By Roland195
06th May 2021 10:57

I am sure someone will be along to point out that just because we don't open a file or levy a fee, our responsibilities to AML are not extinguished but assuming that we give generic, not specific help in terms of pointing to a form to complete themselves or confirming they are unlikely to have any action to take etc, then I am happy to invest the small amount of time likely equal to what would be required to get them off the phone/respond to emails regardless to generate a small amount of goodwill.

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Replying to Roland195:
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By Tax Dragon
06th May 2021 11:16

AML, yes. Also insurance (just because you weren't paid, doesn't mean you're not liable... in fact, you may be more at risk).

These are points to be aware of. It doesn't mean you can't tell someone the basic rate of tax for free.

(So long as you also mention the starter rate, intermediate rate, dividend basic rate, etc etc... jic.)

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By meadowsaw227
06th May 2021 11:02

Over the years I have done plenty of "pro bono" jobs for friends and charities etc.
I still give a free "opinion" to them as and when required, why would you not ?
Similarly the roofer I use doesn't charge me for his opinion on what is required to be done to my roof and he even wouldn't charge me for a small job he did the other day, his words were "not worth billing", plus wouldn't accept a gift .
Ditto the carpenter yesterday.

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Replying to meadowsaw227:
A Putey FACA
By Arthur Putey
06th May 2021 11:39

Blimey, honest tradesmen! Where is your roofer based?

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Replying to meadowsaw227:
picture of a mushroom
By mushroom_dept
07th May 2021 10:28

Wow - we've a little job that needs doing on our roof (one tile on corner needs re-mortaring in place). All the roofers we have contacted (including one we have used several times in the past) have failed to re-visit. One said 'no problem, I'll go home and get my ladder' and never turned up again. My assumption is that they don't think it's worth their while for the amount they'd be able to charge for it. The thought that any one of them might think a small job is worth doing for no charge is almost unbelievable.

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Slim
By Slim
06th May 2021 11:38

I only answer for free if its clear cut simple answer that takes a couple of minutes otherwise you have to pay. I thought this was normal?

Multiple emails or calls, no way.

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Replying to Slim:
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By Tax Dragon
06th May 2021 11:47

.oO If you thought it was normal, why the plea?

Subject to the AML and liability points, already made, which provide automatic limitations on what you can say and do [and as I've said elsewhere I believe the larger firms are strict in adhering to these rules], I don't have any issue.

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Replying to Slim:
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By Tax Dragon
06th May 2021 11:49

Tax Dragon wrote:

.oO If you thought it was normal, why the plea?

Sorry, Slim, not for the first time I have confused you and FT. All it takes is a simple line-drawing and I'm all at sea!

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Replying to Tax Dragon:
Slim
By Slim
06th May 2021 23:44

Haha :)

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By exceljockey
06th May 2021 11:46

I don't know if you can have an inflexible rule on this. Often you have to go with your gut feel.

A couple of things:
1. Some clients won't ask if they know you won't charge - I have had this feedback from clients on fixed monthly fees. So now I set out in more detail what is covered and state the hourly price upfront for any advice they may need. They seem happy with it.
2. Always have an easy and efficient proposal to hand that you can send out very quickly. I think the admin aspect of doing this prevents most of us from actually charging for the advice.

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By wingman22
06th May 2021 11:51

I always thought at least an hour free advice was standard for professional services - solicitors and accounts to gauge the terms of instruction – maybe I’m behind the times. If you are charging for an initial meeting then surely you have to provide the client with value for their outlay. My view is that the ‘advice’ at the outset is to plan what will be done and billed ongoing.

I can’t disagree that you should charge for the work you do but how do you know what this will involve without a chat with the client first. Yes you may waste an hour but you may gain a valuable client and potential further opportunities. Being ruthless on billing is fine if you can afford it – if I was referred a new client and quoted £200 for a first call I know where I’d be told to go!

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Replying to wingman22:
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By Hugo Fair
06th May 2021 13:05

I can't speak for others, but know where you're coming from. But conversely I don't see the problem either.

As you say, I would expect (whether as service provider or a potential client) to have an initial exploratory meeting - the purpose of which is for both parties to identify a common view of the objectives, ascertain if both parties are 'happy' with each other and to enable a Quotation to be drawn up. This meeting is normally 'free' - although the cannier amongst you will have spread the cost across the likely duration of the proposed work (or 1st year if longer).

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Caroline
By accountantccole
06th May 2021 13:24

If it is a new client, I would see free, generic advice as part of the process of demonstrating you understand the issues, suggest tax savings, alternate structures, highlight compliance issues.

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By ireallyshouldknowthisbut
06th May 2021 14:02

The key point to an opening call is about establishing the issue they have (or indeed don't have, and so don't need an accountant) and demonstrating your knowledge. it ought not be about RESOLVING the issues.

Some accountants advertise "a free hours consultation" but s this seems to be advertising for time wasters, its not something I do, but in practice I might spend 2-3 hours with a prospect before they sign up, or I might spend 10 minutes. Depends who they are.

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Sandman
By Mr Sandman
06th May 2021 14:06

Anyone can be a busy fool.
Looking back at my career as a sole practitioner, I don't think - " I wish I'd given more free advice".
I answer requests for free advice with advice to phone the HMRC helpline.
Unless I have a gut feeling the caller can be converted into a fee-paying client.

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RLI
By lionofludesch
06th May 2021 23:21

I've often given free advice. Mainly to discourage folk from asking me to act for them.

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Replying to lionofludesch:
Red Leader
By Red Leader
07th May 2021 14:31

Perhaps as in "I advise you to try another accountant."

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Replying to Red Leader:
RLI
By lionofludesch
07th May 2021 14:44

Red Leader wrote:

Perhaps as in "I advise you to try another accountant."

I won't deny that that has happened.

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blue sheep
By NH
07th May 2021 07:29

Stop being nice and helpful? no thanks

99% of the time I have found that someone ringing up out of the blue for advice is maybe a 5 minute call and by then you can steer them in the direction of "we can do that for you the price is"
I say phone call because we only really used to get time wasters when we had a high street office.
If you are talking about free extras for existing clients thats a different discussion.

when I finally hang up my boots I want to look back and think, at least I did something useful to help people wherever I could, I do not want to look back and think I am so glad I squeezed every last penny out of that - plus in my experience what goes around comes around

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By paul.benny
07th May 2021 08:30

Having made this OP, Mr/s FirstTab hasn't been back to participate in the discussion. Draw your own conclusions

(Looking back over some of his/her recent threads, not participating further does seem to be their norm)

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By JCresswellTax
07th May 2021 09:56

Please stop being nice and helpful? I would hate to be one of your clients!

I get what you are trying to say but you don't really have a way with words do you?

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By rocket_queen
07th May 2021 10:04

Wow, I'm quite surprised by your attitude. I often give free advice, as long as it's not generic information and not something specific. For example, the pandemic has created a huge swathe of people who have become self employed, and I will happily inform people of the timescales for registering as self employed and tax return periods etc. I had one friend in a blind panic in January 2021 over filing a tax return when it turned out she started trading September 2020 so her first tax return wouldn't be due for a year! If I can help someone with something simple like that then I will. Similarly, when they ask something that needs an accountant I will tell them that and point them in the right direction (I am no longer in private practice so the right direction wouldn't be me!).

I suppose it really depends why you are an accountant. If it is to chase money and get a fee for every possible thing then I can see why you wouldn't give anything away for free. I became an accountant after starting a job waitressing at 16 and having my tax code completely screwed up so I was paying BR tax despite it being my first ever job. I couldn't understand why my tax was so high so I went into the Inland Revenue (remember the days of Inland Revenue Enquiry Centres!!) and the person who helped me took the time to explain tax codes and what had gone wrong. I found it so interesting and ended up working there. I often help friends or acquaintances when they are first setting up and can't yet afford the advice they need with things like what information they need to keep, helping them set up systems and making them a dream client for their future accountant. I figure I make plenty of money doing my actual job and if I can help someone who needs that help, why wouldn't I?

I honestly don't think I'm taking anything away from accountants in practice. The "work" I'm doing for free is low level and generally wouldn't be worth charging, however it will most likely benefit their future accountant.

In my opinion, people are far more likely to part with their money if they don't feel they are being fleeced for every last penny. When I was in practice if paying clients asked for something outside the scope of what they were being billed for I would do it for free if it was something relatively small and if not explain what needed to be done and quote for it. My fees weren't particularly low, but clients felt they were fair because I wasn't tracking every last second of a phone call to add it onto their next bill or charging for "reading emails" (popular with solicitors!!).

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Replying to rocket_queen:
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By Matrix
07th May 2021 10:20

Sounds good but this is our actual job and I agree with FT. Freeloaders shouldn't get something for free which clients have to pay for.

I manage it by vetting prospects in advance and obviously wouldn't take up either of our time if they didn't need to do a tax return, for example, and would advise them accordingly.

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Replying to rocket_queen:
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By I'msorryIhaven'taclue
07th May 2021 10:49

I learnt from my solicitor. We'd gone to his offices to sign contracts on a house sale and purchase, and slipped in that we'd like to revise our wills. Our solicitor listened to us, asked a brief question or two to clarify the odd point, and then whilst opening his desk diary said "Yes, I can help you with that. Would you like to make an appointment to discuss this in detail?"

That's how an initial meeting should be, so far as I'm concerned. Listen to their issues, ask questions, but don't solve their problem there and then. (The exception being where they just need a simple reassurance that their perceived problem needs no further action.)

Odd thing is I find more and more that freeloaders these days are undeserving people who can actually afford to pay for professional advice, but elect instead to tout around for free advice and treat internet forums such as Aweb as their entitlement. Maybe FT has a point.

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By Ammie
07th May 2021 10:50

I will help and offer general advice but if I find that they keep digging for more and more I draw the line, recommend the HMRC website and become vague and non specific and that normally tests their real intent to appoint or formalise our relationship.

Last year I had a rare case of an individual taking it a little too far. They made an enquiry and sought minimal advice, not a problem, then came back for a bigger bite of the cherry, hmmm OK. Then came back for a third and fourth time when I withdrew specifics and made the contact worthless. They then enquired about my fees for various types of work and upon seeing my reply then responded with "I don't need an accountant right now, I will contact you when I do". If they do come back my decision has already been made, no thanks, their character clearly tells me that they will be nothing but trouble!

Conclusion. Every case needs to be judged on its own merits. An experienced professional will usually weed out the freegan timewasters and send them elsewhere.

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Replying to Ammie:
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By I'msorryIhaven'taclue
07th May 2021 11:21

Ammie wrote:

An experienced professional will usually weed out the freegan timewasters and send them elsewhere.

Send them on to UKBF perhaps, where commercially-minded accountants trip over themselves to solve those freeloaders' problems?

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Replying to Ammie:
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By rocket_queen
07th May 2021 11:41

I draw the line at basically anything they could make a PI claim against. So general information, fine, specific advise, not fine. A useful tactic when they keep coming back is:
I would not want to advise on that issue without knowing all the specifics of the case as tax / accounts law can be complex and a quick general answer may actually be incorrect and cause more harm than good. Why don't we make an appointment / why don't you make an appointment with another accountant where you can discuss the full circumstances of your case and ensure you are getting the best possible advice.

As I said earlier, I no longer work in private practice so I signpost to an accountant when it's something I can't do for free, but if I was still in practice I would suggest I would get back to them with a quote for the required work.

That way you're not directly saying "on yer bike", you're actually helping them by not providing a half baked answer that could end up being completely incorrect as you don't know all the facts.

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By Tax Dragon
07th May 2021 11:10

This thread has taught me something. It had never occurred to me that, eg, "The deadline for online filing of a tax return is 31 January" was providing 'advice'. I don't deny that the way I use that word, in a professional context, has been heavily influenced by my professional training; maybe I just hadn't realised quite how heavily! For the avoidance of doubt, when I say 'advice' in this forum, I mean something like "guidance or recommendations offered with regard to future (trans)actions/planning" - something AML and PI really do stop you doing for free. Whereas a lot of the 'being nice' stuff mentioned in this thread covers things I wouldn't hesitate to do.

Another FT fail - not really explaining what he means.

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Replying to Tax Dragon:
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By I'msorryIhaven'taclue
07th May 2021 11:29

Agree with TD. For me the distinguishing line is drawn between the general guidance of imparting information (rules, deadline dates, and so on) and the more specific advice provided when such information is applied to a person's particular circumstances.

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Replying to I'msorryIhaven'taclue:
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By rocket_queen
07th May 2021 11:48

I would be very wary of offering specific advise for free, simply because specific advice, if wrong, could possibly get you sued. If it's for free, it's likely you don't know all the specifics and you are more likely to make mistakes. The only exception to this is a do an Independent Examination of a charity for free. They are at the lowest threshold so only require a person with a reasonable understanding of accounts, I do double the work I would normally do for that level as I know I wouldn't be covered by any PI etc. I checked with ACCA before I took it on as I don't hold a practicing certificate and they agreed that doing it for free and at that level was absolutely fine as I wasn't "practicing".

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Replying to rocket_queen:
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By I'msorryIhaven'taclue
07th May 2021 12:06

Well, yes, and aside from potential P.I. issues it's rather uncommercial of us to solve people's problems for free.

And regarding P.I. exposure, I believe TD was drawing a distinction between dispensing factual information -that which is freely available on the internet - and applying that information to a poster's particular case and advising that poster accordingly. Drawing the line, so to speak.

I suppose charities are a different kettle of fish, so far as pro-bono work is concerned. I believe it's the free advice to random tightwads that's bothered the O.P.

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Replying to I'msorryIhaven'taclue:
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By Tax Dragon
07th May 2021 12:59

Pro bono is different. There's a contract. You've carried out AML. Etc.

A contract... sets out what you will and will not do. (At least, if it's any good it will.) It limits the matters for which you can be sued and limits your liability for advising on those matters. Free, uncontracted advice has no such boundaries. Suppose accountantccole has a meeting with a non-client, suggests some tax savings and alternate structures, non-client thinks "whizzo", doesn't engage accountantccole, adopts the new structure, and maybe collects a huge tax bill in consequence, or misses some legal point, or loses a client, or misses out on SEISS, or indeed suffers any loss of any kind. No contract, no protection at all for accountantccole.

AML... well that's just complying with the law, no?

Etc... etc.

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Replying to Tax Dragon:
RLI
By lionofludesch
07th May 2021 13:10

Tax Dragon wrote:
Free, uncontracted advice has no such boundaries. Suppose accountantccole has a meeting with a non-client......

I take it you've singled aacountantccole out because of the cross-border issue.

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Replying to Tax Dragon:
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By I'msorryIhaven'taclue
07th May 2021 13:25

So it should be alright to point someone at say a HMRC website and state objectively "here's the information you want", and maybe even to present them with factual information of the ilk you've described ("the deadline's 31st January").

But I agree wholeheartedly that applying that information to non-clients' problems and proffering advice shouldn't happen. Easy to get dragged in to such subjective waters though - maybe it's time Aweb allowed us each a disclaimer, as UKBF does.

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By indomitable
07th May 2021 13:46

General simple advice via pointing someone to say HMRC's website is probably OK to give free but would definitely draw the line at giving specific advice for free.

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By Justin Bryant
07th May 2021 16:01

If the free advice on this website is anything to go by, I wouldn't lose too much sleep over this if I were you!

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By Dinks
07th Jun 2022 21:40

I'm sorry, I'm late to this thread.

Lately, I have had can you help? I will pay for your time, then it's can you check my accounts so I haven't missed anything for my tax return, next email can you sit with me while I submit it - I gave a little advice, but the minute I said No, they didn't like that.

Tonight, I got an email from a client, hence why I was searching on here to see if anyone else has had the problem. The client wrote, I can do my own tax return this year, what days are you free so you can talk me through putting the CGT on the return and I was looking for a polite way of saying no.

I think, we are going to be asked more and more for free advice because people are being told that business banking app or Xero/Quickbooks gives them all the tax knowledge they need and then they realise it doesn't

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Replying to Dinks:
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By Hugo Fair
07th Jun 2022 21:57

Back to my analogies ...
... they think 'all I need' is a few minutes advice on the dashboard layout in my new car - but forget that they never actually learned to drive!

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Replying to Dinks:
RLI
By lionofludesch
07th Jun 2022 22:19

Just tell them you'd have to do the ML stuff and charge them a vast wedge for the five minutes you spent with them.

"Sorry, blame Boris."

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